As it starts to get consistently warmer in the DC area (though this past Memorial Day weekend was an exception), my Miami roots are excited to be able to wear sandals daily, but I find myself getting worked up about how the warmer weather and higher humidity will impact working with chocolate.
I grew up in Miami, so all I knew for years was flip-flops and sandals—anything that didn’t suffocate my feet. In college, I happily walked around the University of Miami campus amongst palm trees, under sunny skies, and in flip-flops. Then I moved to DC for law school, and for the first few years in DC, as fall began turning to winter, I waited until the absolute last minute to pack my sandals away for the season. I was so stubborn about it that I remember a time during early winter, when I got on an elevator with a woman who looked down at my open-toed shoes and said: “I hope you like pneumonia because you’re gonna get it.” That was a bit harsh since she didn’t know me, and if it was possible to “get” pneumonia by wearing sandals, she wouldn’t be the one taking me to the hospital.
You get my point about sandals.
But when my life started to revolve around chocolate, I’d become conflicted as spring and summer approached. The sandals would come back out, but I had to be even more vigilant about working with chocolate because the changes in temperature and humidity affect the finished product.
Warm & Sticky
To begin with, chocolate must be in the right condition before you venture to produce truffles, bars, etc. Chocolate has to be not just melted but properly crystallized—that is, the right number of beta V crystals have to be present in the chocolate so that when the chocolate sets, it has the perfect shine and snap that you’ve come to expect from chocolate. Some refer to chocolate in this state as “tempered” chocolate.
The temperature of the chocolate offers a general sense of whether the chocolate is in the right condition, but temperature alone doesn’t give you the full picture because it doesn’t account for the temperature or humidity of the workspace (or the thermometer could be inaccurate). Speaking of temperatures, dark chocolate should never be heated above 115-120°F, and milk and white chocolate should never be heated above 104-110°F. Only by working with chocolate consistently can you recognize whether it’s crystallized.
Since the temperature and humidity of my workspace impact crystallization, the warmer and stickier it is outside, the more attentive I have to be to my environment. The workspace must be between 65-70ºF and lower than 50% humidity. I have at least two temperature gauges, and one of them measures humidity.
I also monitor the utensils and containers that my crystallized chocolate will come into contact with because a cold ladle, for example, will affect your already-crystallized chocolate.
Not only is chocolate finicky when it comes to temperature, but chocolate’s worst nightmare is contact with water. Or maybe that’s just my nightmare. If melted chocolate comes into contact with water, you’ll get a grainy, muddy mass of chocolate. I’m always obsessing to be sure that any surface that will come into contact with chocolate (utensils, bowls, etc.) is DRY! If not, the chocolate is lost, at least for my purposes.
For those at home using a double boiler to melt chocolate, make sure that the water is not boiling and the chocolate is not covered. There’s a chance that steam from the water could make its way into your chocolate. The microwave is a better option, but don’t use full power, work in short intervals, stir in between intervals, and stop heating the chocolate before it has completely melted—otherwise, you risk burning the chocolate. In my early days, I did this—overheated chocolate smells awful, can’t be fixed, and you feel guilty for having wasted chocolate!
Working with chocolate is tricky, and more so in the summer, but transporting and shipping chocolate in the summer are an entirely different battle (and post). So if you see me walking around with a worried look on my face and flip-flops on my feet, you’ll know that it’s warm enough that you won’t “get” pneumonia.